Every person is born with certain natural gifts, and every baptized person is given at least one charism, or spiritual gift, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s important to know the difference.
A natural gift is in the order of nature, and a charism in the order of grace. Natural gifts (often called “talents”) can be discerned, sometimes quite easily, through simple attentiveness to the human person—hitting a baseball 380 feet with no practice, singing at perfect pitch, or calculating the square root of 52 in their head to six decimal places. These gifts are inherited. Charisms, on the other hand, are given directly by God.
Grace perfects nature, so there is sometimes an obvious congruence between a gift and a charism. For instance, someone with natural artistic talent could receive the charism of craftsmanship, which the Catherine of Siena Institute defines as a charism that “empowers a Christian to be an effective channel of God’s goodness to others through artistic or creative work that beautifies and/or orders the physical world.”[i]
Blessed Bl. John of Fiescol, known commonly as Fra Angelico, had a natural artistic ability from a young age. His natural talent could’ve been used in many different ways, but through his life of grace it became entirely directed to God’ glory. “To paint Christ, one must live Christ,” he wrote. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Angelico patron of artists, and presented him as a perfect model of the harmony between faith and art.
In no instance, though, is a charism simply the natural development of a talent. It is always a gratuitous gift from God. Charisms often manifest themselves in extraordinary ways that seem to completely surprise those who receive them and the people around them. At Pentecost, the apostles began speaking in tongues to the utter amazement of everyone present. People thought they were drunk! They couldn’t explain this sudden outpouring of the spirit, and they resorted to natural explanations.
Maximus the Confessor reflects on the congruence between natural gifts and charisms, while carefully distinguishing them. They are never separated, but neither are they ever confused.
“The grace of the most Holy Spirit does not confer wisdom on the saints without their natural intellect as capacity to receive it; nor does he give the gift of knowledge where there is not a natural rational ability to receive it….nor does he give charisms and healings where there is no natural love for our neighbor, nor any one of the other charisms where the conditions are not right and there is no matching ability to receive them. In any case, no one will ever come to possess any of the gifts we have mentioned through any natural ability whatever, but only through the divine power that confers them. – Maximum the Confessor, Various Chapters. IV.13”
Charisms are always given for the purpose of building up the Church and the needs of the world. Since they are directed at building up the body of Christ, they can’t be discerned apart from the Body of Christ. While a natural talent can be discerned by nearly anybody, a charism can only be discerned from within the living body that it serves.
Both natural talents and charisms are gifts, though, and every gift comes with a mission. There is an intrinsic connection between a gift and a mission, like a key to a keyhole. There is even a lexical link between the two ideas in the Polish language. John Paul II, in his 1999 Letter to Artists, reflects on the relationship between the words “creator” (stwórca, in Polish) and “craftsman” (twórca). He notes that God creates man and woman in His image, and he entrusts the task of cultivating the earth to them.
Their mission comes from their gift. The Pope writes that “the more conscious they are of their gift, [the more they] are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their mission.”[ii]
Through an awareness of how God has created each person and the gifts and charisms they have been given, we can better understand their mission. We have an important task of helping young people to understand their natural gifts and talents, but also the charisms received at baptism so that they can co-create their vocation with the outpouring of grace that God bestows on all the baptized. “Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term,” the Pope wrote. “Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece …” (John Paul II, Letter to Artists).
[i] Catherine of Siena Institute
[ii] John Paul II, Letter to Artists